1 of 9 – EcoSex @ U Conn – Book Reports – Microcosmos: Michael’s Take
The EcoSex course at U Conn is in process. It’s a great experience. We are expanding horizons with clustered reading: Theory of Science, Cultural Theory, Ecological Theory. We each read related books, then report to group. More thinking out of the box and across disciplines. Students are sending their book reports in. In class, we connect the dots. From a holograph of what we’ve read together, the “required readings.” What’s the connection with our clustered themes? Multiple perspectives and good synergy. Here, we offer a glimpse. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan’s Microcosmosis one of two “Theory of Science” books. We got Michael to report on it.
Michael Maranets: A Book Report on Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan
Microcosmos by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, provides a fascinating look at the life of microbes as they evolved over the course of the planet’s history. The experience of reading the book in the context of an Ecosexuality class has been informative in many ways. The book itself is very heavily based in the microbiology of evolution and tracing the path of the planets development to be suitable for life in the first place. In the context of an Ecosexuality class this has particular relevance because of the heavy emphasis of symbiosis at every point in the book’s description of the evolution of the planet and the evolution of the microcosm.
Similarly, the themes of this book certainly fit within the broader scientific themes discussed within the class, particularly with regards to the aforementioned symbiosis, the unappreciated or unacknowledged role that microorganisms play in planet wide symbiosis and the contributions of both towards Gaia Theory. Like the other books written by Margulis that have been read for this class, Microcosmosdeals heavily with microbial symbiosis and the origins of sex. It is closer to Symbiotic Planet than Mystery Dance in terms of its content and how it approaches the idea of symbiosis. In terms of style it is also closer to Symbiotic Planet because it does not deal with as wide-ranging a field of academia as Mystery Dance did, focusing instead entirely on microbiology. While it does discuss the sex lives of bacteria and how the molecular basis for the genetic exchange involved in sex arose, its focus is on a much more basic level biologically than the emphasis on larger zoological discussions of eukaryotes in Mystery Dance. I would also say it is aimed at a more biologically literate reader than Symbiotic Planet was but that it is still readily accessible to anyone who has taken even high school biology.
The detail given to the idea of symbiotic evolution is much more thorough than anything previously encountered in this course. An example of this can be seen as Margulis traces a likely mechanism for evolution of the various energy generating systems within the microcosm that lead eventually to aerobic respiration that we carry out and its tremendous efficiency. In her discussion of how fermentation or the breakdown of sugars in the absence of oxygen arose, Margulis describes the tremendous inefficiency of this mechanism and how the final products of fermentation like ethanol and acetate can still be used to harvest additional energy. The truth of the former can be seen by the fact that humans are now increasingly looking at microbial produced ethanol as a source of alternative energy to replace oils. In the bacterial world what happened instead was that other microbes arose that could take these molecules of fermentation products, utilize it in their own metabolic pathways, and subsequently create products which the original fermenting bacteria could then feed on themselves. This cycle of food and waste between these symbiotic organisms is one of the first examples of intra-species cooperation she posits in the history of life on this planet and is one that continues to this day in places low on oxygen and light.
Another example she provides to describe the tremendous importance of symbiosis in evolution showcases that even bacteria that we may think of as being pathogenic may actually be symbiotic in other organisms. She describes the problem faced by a researcher of amoeba (one of the most basic forms of eukaryotic life) that had been plagued by outbreak of pathogenic bacteria, which seemed to kill all of the amoebic samples in his lab. While safeguarding a sample of uninfected amoeba in another researcher’s lab, the scientist began selecting for amoeba that could survive the pathogenic bacteria. Eventually he had large quantities of these amoeba that could survive being infected by 40,000 bacterial cells. He then retrieved one of the original samples and transplanted nuclei of the now immune cells into the original strain and put the nucleus of original amoeba into these immune amoeba. What happened was quite surprising. The amoeba, which continued with bacterial infection but had a new genome via its transplanted nucleus, was able to survive indefinitely. The samples that lacked bacteria but had the genome of the amoeba that survived infection, started dying off without bacteria, and only after he incubated the growth medium with the appropriate strain of bacteria did these amoeba start surviving.
Given the title of the book, a large amount of time is spent describing the intricacies of the microcosm. I think her argument for the idea of ‘super-organism’ she alludes to in Mystery Dance is laid out in its clearest form in Microcosmos. She describes the work of researchers who have argued for a degree of consciousness of bacteria as they interact with each other. In describing these bacteria, Margulis personifies them to be a collective all working on the same problem akin to how humans now dedicate billions at genetic problems like cancer that threaten our existence. But, she also goes on to describe how this microcosmic ‘super-organism’ is responsible for all other life on Earth and how our symbiosis with them is the most crucial aspect of why other life more complex than bacteria arose. The first example of this she gives is that of nitrogen-fixation in organic molecules. Turning the inert gas nitrogen into the molecule that can be used as the primary backbone of all DNA and proteins in all living things is extremely energy intensive. Humanity has learned how to achieve this process for the production of fertilizer but it is extremely energy intensive and would not be possible without fossil fuels. And yet, one of the earliest bacteria evolved the ability to fix nitrogen into molecules, which can be used by all organic life. The process is energy intensive in these organisms too, which is why so few other organisms adopted this evolutionary niche subsequently. The symbiosis that occurs as a result of these nitrogen-fixers is two-fold. First, their symbiotic relationship in the roots of all living plants allows these plants to grow in the first place. All organisms that consume these plants and each other subsequently rely on the nitrogen from these bacteria. Without the evolution of these bacteria, no other life could have evolved and if something were to happen to these bacteria in the present, all life on Earth would quickly cease.
The other major example Margulis gives of the symbiosis of the ‘super-organism’ and other life is that of the planet’s oxygen rich environment, which was not present for the majority of Earth’s existence. The pursuit of the ‘super-organism’ to find ever more efficient sources of electrons eventually lead them to the energy readily locked up in water. The oxygen that enabled the rise of life larger than microbes was only possible because of the waste products generated by the ‘super-organism’.
These ideas certainly fit within the class’s discussion of Gaia Theory. As mentioned in Symbiotic Planet, Gaia Theory is purely the observation of our planetary symbiosis from the macroscale of space. The plethora of examples Margulis provides as to the altruistic cooperation evidenced by bacteria in their evolution and the consequences of their evolution for all other life certainly provide a compelling argument for the view of Gaia Theory we have been discussing.
The organization of this book is very similar to that scene within Mystery Dance. Margulis proceeds in a chronological manner starting from the competing ideas for the origins of life on the planet and then into the possible mechanisms for how life continued to evolve using a progression through the microbial fossil record before getting into the intricate beauty of reproduction and the genetic recombination of DNA that defines it. The topics are wide-ranging within the study of bacteria and life, but for the purposes of the class limited purely to the symbiotic basis for Gaia Theory, which we have been discussing. The book’s insight is particularly keen given it was written in 1986 before there was as much evidence for many of the theories that Margulis provides in this book.
Let “nature” be your teacher in the arts of love. Education is the heart of democracy, education to love. Come back for more wonders: Book Reports to appear every other Thursday. Book Reports scheduled every other Thursday. Check out our summer offerings: Ecosexuality in Portland, OR, July 17-21. Info and Registration here!
Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, PhD
Gilf Gaia Extraordinaire
Author of Gaia,Eros, and many other books about love Professor of Humanities